Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SAT Debriefing. Get the Scoop After the Exam to Help Kids Perform Better Each Time

Good news--my students took the SAT this past weekend and I am pleased to report (as they told me first thing Monday in class) that they heeded my exam advice of last week and feel good about their recent SAT performance.

What was my advice?  It comes in several forms, according to different portions of the exam--though I am skipping math here, as I am an English teacher.

Essay: These are read and graded very quickly (try less than a minute). Therefore, students need to focus on opening line and thesis (which can be one and the same, if time is short, as it always is) along with a few other important areas.

First, I recommend leaving the first couple of lines blank so that students can think of a more killer opening when they're done with the rest of the essay.

THIS ADVICE REALLY HELPS; I am not just tooting my own horn. Seriously, it works.  Even my students who claimed they could never, not ever, not begin at the beginning...well, they tried it and reported success.  (I told them to "write as though you are beginning at the beginning, but just leave the first couple of lines blank and then go back and add a better first line." They said that worked well and helped them to overcome their personal obsessions with starting at what they assumed would be the beginning.)

We don't know their grades yet, but the point is that they feel good about their openings and believe that they managed to craft something catchy and original.

Also important in the essay: Transitions!  TR, as I write them over and over and over again in margin notes, are key. Students at least need basic ones such as "First," or "Next," but if there's one thing I want my students to learn about writing, it is how to take it to the next level.  So, instead of utilitarian transitions, students should try upping the level of sophistication with "Not only....but also..." phrases and their ilk.

Essays need a stance (see thesis), and I urge my students to pick a strong one--Yes or No--and never waffle or try to play both sides with a weak, "Sometimes it's good to follow the crowd (typical SAT essay topic) and sometimes it isn't" response. 

Even if the student doesn't believe the Yes or No stance selected, just choose one. It makes for a stronger thesis, and more cohesive, pointed essay. A thesis should also always respond to the prompt.

Not to skip the meat of the essay, but examples are important. I tell my students they have a few options: pick a historical example, a literary one, or a personal one.  Ideally, try one of each (or two of three).

While there have been strong SAT essays written solely on personal examples, I tell my students to seize the opportunity to show off what they know, and their ability to make connections.  Even though that aspect of writing isn't expressly graded, a quickly-scanned essay that contains, say, references to Galileo or Gandhi and Huck Finn (along with Grandma), is unequivocally better--or, at least, perceived as better--than one that discusses conversations with friends at a mall.

Miscellaneous advice: I tell students to write 4-graf essays, for the most part, but not to write too short, and to PRINT NEATLY. I myself have read so many horribly-handwritten essays that I know readers hate them and will feel much more positive about a clear, easy-to-read piece. Readers are only human, after all...

In conclusion,  conclusions are absolutely key. Even if the conclusion (as the intro may be) is only one line, it has to be sharp and sum up in new words the entire point of the essay. Bonus points are awarded (metaphorically speaking) to conclusions that leave the reader with an interesting, long-lasting mental image (or, as I usually note it, "new thoughts to ponder").

As for Reading Comp (aka, Critical Reading), I  tell my kids to mark up their test booklets like crazy. Margin notes should always include thoughts on the MAIN PURPOSE and TONE of the passage. There will certainlybe questions on these aspects of the readings.

I tell my students to SKIP the questions they simply don't know (write a faint pencil line through the row of bubbles on the answer sheet that correspond to the question skipped so as not to mess up the entire thing). Why? Because it's better to leave it blank (within reason; a student expecting a strong score can't actually skip all that many questions per section) than it is to get it wrong and lose points.

Vocabulary is what Reading Comp is mostly about. Most of the questions are veiled vocabulary tests. Therefore, students need to know the standard SAT vocab.

After years of doing this, I have a pretty good idea about which words usually appear on the exam. Hint: many of them come from Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." I also give my kids lists with smatterings of legal/government and scientific words. ("Ennui" is another typical SAT word--as I just noted, "expect to see ennui." And it was there!)

Getting a good score on the Verbal sections of the SAT exam really boils down, however, to READING. The more you've read, the more you know, the more words in your vocabulary, the better you understand things and how to write.  Students who are widely read get better scores on the SAT than reluctant readers.

And there's always next time (practice makes perfect).


  1. Have printed this out and am passing it around. Let us know how the scores look, once your students tell you.

  2. All I ask is that the scores go up. There seems to be a curve that could affect things, but in general, I just want progress from the PSATs, which can be weak.

    Thanks for sharing my advice--it's pretty rushed here, but these are the basics.